I Passed my PhD 6 Years Ago This Week: What Tips do I Have for Those Who Are in the Process?

On my Facebook page, it popped up that I had passed my PhD viva 6 years ago this week. I undertook my PhD in a slightly unusual way, as I did it as part of the National Institute for Health Research Doctoral Fellowship scheme. This meant that I undertook a PhD 50% of the time as part of my day job in Infection Prevention and Control. It also meant that I didn’t start my PhD until I was 30 and, although I was linked to an academic department, I was not really embedded within one. I was pretty much in a team of one. This has its advantages but it also meant that I didn’t really have the peer support of being in a department with lots of PhD students. It also meant that it was hard to benchmark whether I was doing OK. For people who are also undertaking a PhD without lots of peer support, or are thinking of doing one, I thought I would use this blog post to talk about some of the things I wish I had known.

Project Manage Yourself

A PhD is the biggest single project that most people will ever manage on their own as a continuous piece of work. It feels like a huge undertaking and it can often feel overwhelming. Like any project, therefore, it benefits from being split into more manageably-sized chunks. This can feel difficult when you don’t yet have a feel for where you need to end up. It’s often helpful to think of it in three main themes and to set targets for each of them:

  • Project milestones i.e. literature review, initial data collection, key project themes.
  • Personal objectives i.e. developing communication skills, developing teaching skills, adapting to academic and scientific culture.
  • Professional objectives i.e. building networks, learning techniques.

Use these objectives and milestones to create a working document. Know that it is a working document and that everything will shift and change. This shouldn’t be a millstone: it should be something where you tick off the components you’ve achieved so that in the dark days, when you forget what progress you have made, you have something that reminds you of how far you have come. It can also be a really useful tool to help you re-focus when you have a lot of options or things available to you. Use it to prioritise and to decide whether your choices are moving you towards your goals.

Actively Manage Your Relationship with Your Supervisor

Not everyone has a great relationship with their supervisor: some people have supervisors who will take them for cake and a pick-me-up, others have a supervisor who they don’t see for months at a time or who may appear overly critical. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, there are some things worth considering early on in your PhD:

  • Understand the context – Unfortunately for you, most PhD supervisors do not have supervision as their main job. In healthcare, this is mostly their clinical work; even in academia it’s often the need to apply for funding for their group and publications for their progression. If you can understand the drivers on your supervisor’s time then you will be better able to work with them.
  • Be clear about your needs – I would always advise developing a learning agreement with your supervisor very early on in your relationship/project. Everyone learns in different ways and your supervisor is not a mind reader. By developing a learning agreement, you and your supervisor can work out what works best for you both. Do you want regular contact, or does micromanagement drive you mad? What’s the best way to communicate? Email? Face to face? Phone? How often will you sit down and have a project review meeting? What information will they expect you to have? Do their aims for you align with your goals?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Understand that a PhD is an apprenticeship in research: you don’t need all the answers. It may turn our that your supervisor may not be the best person to answer all of your questions, some of them may be too technical, or they may not be available enough to assist. Despite that, they should still be your first port of call and should be able to signpost you to assistance if they can’t provide it themselves.

Find Your Tribe and Learn to Speak their Language

The last bullet point brings me onto this point. For many many reasons you will need more than your supervisor to get you through a PhD. You may be like I was and pretty much alone, or you may be surrounded by other PhDs. Whatever your circumstances you will need to find support. You won’t be able to ask your supervisor every time you need to order lab books or where the pipette tips are stored – sadly, they are unlikely to know.

Getting out and attending lab meetings, or other teaching, can be a great way to not only meet people but also to develop the subject specific language you’ll need to succeed. If, like I was, you’re alone, then your funders will hopefully be able to signpost you to other people on similar schemes, and don’t forget about your postgraduate tutor (you should have one) who may be able to make connections for you across departments/buildings. If you are doing a PhD and are part of a professional group (or even if not), social media is often your friend. There are lots of good twitter accounts that can be a valuable source of information.

Do Your Homework

Every University has different processes and management expectations. It is worth understanding early on what these are and what you need to do about them. Is there an electronic log? How many lectures etc. outside of your PhD do you need to attend? What evidence do you need to collate? Do you need supervisors to sign off for specific things? My supervisors didn’t know any of these things and it proved crucial for me to not only be aware of them but to understand how to traverse them. This is especially true if you also have an external funder to satisfy and returns that are expected.

Take the time to learn your cultural norms and consider what authorship order is normal for the subject area. How often are you expected to present? How can you involve public engagement in your work? Are you expected to apply for further funding and to whom?

Learn Your Process

Not everyone works the same way. My amazing colleague, Melisa, will tell you that we often do our best work when just talking through ideas over lunch. This means that my lab book often has many serviettes stuck into it, waiting to be written up. Many people carry notebooks (Mel does) but, for me, this has just ended up the way it works: I can then write it up neatly and in a structured way – that additional process helps me.

Talking of lab books, make sure you have them and that you keep them. Have a structured way of recording information so that you make sure you have everything down and don’t miss crucial details which were blatantly obvious at the time. I can promise you that when you come to look at them three years down the line you will have no idea what that obvious information was. I also colour code mine for different types of work (viruses = purple headers, bacteria = green etc.) because it helps when you’re flicking through years of books towards the end.

It’s also worth knowing what your writing process involves. For a long time I beat myself up for not being able to get on and write straight away. I would berate myself for prevarication as I would tend to cook, run or even, god forbid, clean rather than start to type. Then, after about three days, I would sit down and I would write something like a paper in full. It took me forever to realise this was my process. I would spend time percolating things over, deciding my story, thinking about structure, even if I wasn’t specifically thinking I was processing in the back of my mind. It was all still work and made my writing more efficient and so I have learned to accept that writing is not JUST sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s everything that leads up to those words.

I also want to quickly note here that my process is not going to be the same as yours. You will find your own, but be aware of it and learn to be comfortable with it.

Finally, Give Yourself a Break

All projects are different, and not all subjects are the same. Although I talked earlier about benchmarking you really do need to bear this in mind. Use benchmarking to help you, not break you. You are on your own journey and it will be different from everyone else’s. Also be aware that there are some things that seem to happen to everyone, like the second year slump. No one told me about this and I struggled for ages thinking it was really abnormal. I finally confessed and was told that it happens to just about everyone. The second year slump is where you are far enough into your PhD to have a good feeling for where you need to end up and of the work involved, but you are too far from the end to have really started ticking off the achievement boxes and it all stills feels far away and overwhelming. The second year slump can happen at different times to different people, especially if you’re part-time, but this is just one example of knowing that this is a learning process and sometimes you just have to go with it.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Quality Control in Scientific Publishing: what is it actually like to review papers?

It’s Friday evening and because I’m so rock and roll, or, actually, because I’m so very far behind with jobs, I’m supposed to be spending this evening reviewing papers for four different journals. Confession: I’m actually watching The Craft and writing this instead. I’m hoping it will inspire me to get on with the task at hand.

PhD Comics = So true it’s painful

What is paper reviewing?

Manuscripts (scientific papers/articles) go through a process called ‘peer review’ as part of the publication process. It’s a key part of ensuring the quality of published work, which is then going to reach a much wider and, sometimes, ‘non expert’ audience.

My job as a reviewer is to do a few key things (from my position as a life scientist):

  • Help the editor ensure that the paper is ethical. For instance, I didn’t use animal models when other methods would be more suitable, or that clinical data was misused without permission.
  • Ensure that the paper is reproducible. Is there enough information in the methods that I could take them and try to reproduce the experiment to ensure that it works and can apply to other samples/data?
  • Confirm whether the work is novel and that it adds to the body of scientific work out there. This also means we attempt to identify plagiarism, but I would never claim to be able to know all of the literature out there to ensure this.
  • Respond to whether the work is of a suitable standard for publication. This is very open, but mainly means: is the question they’ve asked of the data the right one? is the experimental design able to answer the research question posed? is the literature and justification presented for interpretation appropriate? Have they correctly reported on the flaws and biases that are inevitably present in any piece of work?

What is the peer review process?

Once you submit a paper (see my post on Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers), your submission will be allocated to an editor. That editor will then select reviewers from (usually) a combination of the reviewers you’ve suggested when you submitted and the list of reviewers they have on file. One of the reasons it’s so important to choose a journal that matches what you’re submitting is that you want to make sure the reviewers they have on file are going to have the knowledge and expertise in your topic area.

Once the editor has picked their reviewers they will then email out an invitation to review to those scientists. Usually, at this point, the invitee can see the abstract and make a decision whether they have the knowledge and skills to be useful in undertaking the review. I get some truly random invites that I turn down linked to topics I know nothing about and so it is really important that as individuals we’re aware of the scope of our practice and don’t overstretch. Once the reviewer has accepted they then get access to the whole paper and a deadline for submitting their response, usually ~ 2 weeks.

When you submit your review you have to justify your responses and give specific feedback for the authors to address. There are four main categories of response:

  • Accept without revision
  • Accept with minor revisions
  • Accept with major revision (maybe able to request that the paper is re-reviewed as part of this)
  • Reject

Now this is where I have to fess up! I am great at the accepting the invite part. I am not as good at getting the job done because of my other work load. I am probably one of the reasons that your paper reviews take AGES to come back. Sorry about that.

What is it like to review papers and how do I start?

To be honest, I usually have a feel for how it’s going to play out from the abstract. This is why a well-written abstract is so crucial: it gives a really good idea about how the author is going to be able to present their chain of thought and to be succinct in what is a relatively short format of ~4000 words for most papers.

If the paper has good concepts but it needs extra data or re-writing to get there, I will usually take a fair amount of time to give a lot of comments. I know this sounds perverse. However, the more comments I give you, if I give major corrections, the more worthy I think your paper is. It takes time to give feedback and I don’t put in the energy if it doesn’t have merit.

I’m not a rejecter. I don’t often completely reject papers unless they are clinically unsafe. This sometimes happens when non-clinical researchers make clinical suggestions in terms of antibiotic use when they are not qualified to do so.

Two final things.

One – If I spend a lot of time giving a heap of comments to try and make the submission better and it comes back to me without any attempt being made at most of them, I will a) remember as not that much time will have passed and b) not be very happy that my time spent trying to make the work better has been ignored.

Two – Lots of people believe we are paid or get some benefit from reviewing papers. We don’t. We don’t even get a discount for submitting to the journals we review for. The benefit you get is learning and reflecting about what makes a good article and therefore how to make your own work better.

Right! I’d better get on with reviewing those papers now………………….

Top Tips:

  • Think carefully about who you suggest as reviewers.
  • Some submission pages have options to list people who you don’t want to review as they are competitors within your field. This isn’t such a big deal in my world but, if you’re doing pure research, it’s worth considering.
  • Take the opportunity to start reviewing papers early in your career. It will help you think about your own writing and will improve your submissions.
  • Don’t take reviewers’ comments personally – use the gin and tonic method described under Don’t Get Disheartened in my previous post. They are there to help you, so take the constructive and let the rest wash over you.
  • If you are a reviewer remember our job is to be constructive, try not to be ‘Reviewer Three’.

All blog opinions are my own

Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers – Is it as hard as it seems?

Before I start. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a published academic but I have fewer than 30 papers, not the 200+ some of my colleagues have. See my publications page if you’re interested. There are reasons for this. One, I’ve only had my PhD since 2015. But the main reason is that I’m not your traditional academic. I have a clinical post which is >50% of my time and so my work is about moving research from the research (academic) setting into clinical practice to improve patient care.

Why I Research

I still really clearly remember the stress that writing and submitting my first 1st author scientific paper caused me. It’s difficult to describe the transition from being a good student to being an academic. As students, we fear failure. I, like most academics, have never failed an exam and have what can only be called a visceral dread of what it would mean. You then move into a world where 80% of grants will be rejected and failure becomes part of everyday life. When I submitted my first paper, I hadn’t come to terms with that yet. I was still worried about what rejection would mean for me and how people see me. Now it’s just a fact of life.

Some misconceptions about publishing.

A lot of my friends mistakenly believe that scientists get paid for publishing their work. The opposite is true. If I want my work to reach the maximum number of people, I have to pay (usually several thousand pounds) for my article to be open access (i.e. free to access). Therefore, dissemination of your work can be really expensive and not necessarily reach the right people, as most clinicians and patients won’t be able to read articles requiring payment. It’s one of the reasons why science communication is key.

One of the other common beliefs is that the collection of data is most of the work in getting a scientific publication. This may be personal to me, but I have never found this to be the case. I always have way more data than I have time to publish; I currently have over 18 papers in draft, as I struggle to find solid blocks of writing time. This could be because I find the planning of experiments and data collection an adventure. The writing is stressful as I’m always trying to fit something that requires focus and blocks of time around a dozen other tasks. I often don’t have the mental space to enjoy it.

What about the publishing process?

There are some main stages to paper drafting and submission which are worth bearing in mind:

  • Journal and editor selection
  • Drafting
  • Co-author edits
  • Submission
  • Revision
  • Hopefully publication (if not, back to the beginning)

Many authors jump straight into drafting without really spending enough (or any) time on journal selection. Many PhD students don’t do this as they see their supervisors just jumping straight in. That’s normally because supervisors know a lot more about the publishing landscape and so already know the background.

Why is journal selection important?

Manuscript publishing is like any other form of publishing. You need to choose the right journal for your content. Every journal will have specific topic areas they are interested in. They will also have specific formats they will want you to follow in terms of length, numbers of figures and tables, as well as referencing style. If you start drafting without having an idea of where you are going to submit you will often not put the correct emphasis on your writing to get it into your journal of choice. You will also waste time you could spend on other things restructuring what you have already written.

Hint 1: Even title choice is linked to your journal of choice. Do they like long titles? Do they appreciate a witty title to draw readers in?

Hint 2: Go through similar articles to the one you are planning to write and look at the length of different sections in order to understand where the emphasis lies. Do they have a long methods section? Do they focus on discussion?

If you get the research right you will save yourself a tonne of time later on with re-writes and rejections.

What about co-authors?

It is obviously crucial to include your co-authors but I have also learnt that it can be helpful to pick the point at which you circulate to them. If you include everyone during drafting, you can end up with too many different points of view that mean you end up with a manuscript that is unclear or meandering. I’ve learnt to include a few key people, get it to a publishable stage and then circulate. Pick your key people carefully if you are working in a multidisciplinary team so that you get the benefit of their perspective, but don’t get too distracted from the agreed paper themes.

Finally. Don’t get disheartened.

Rejection is just part of the process. Papers will become stronger for revisions and contribute more, thus having more impact. Remember that the criticisms are of the manuscript. They are not criticisms of you. My method for dealing with reviews is to open the email and read the comments. I then close the email down, go and make a double gin and tonic and wait 48 hours before responding. The memory of the comments is never as bad as I thought and once you take the emotion out of it you can just crack on.

All opinions in this blog are my own